Setting UpHow to apply for a patent in the UK

How to apply for a patent in the UK

Great – you’ve come up with an amazing new idea or invention, now you should think about how to protect your idea. A patent provides legal protection for an invention, which can be a product or a process providing a new solution to a problem. It grants the patent owner exclusive rights and prevents others from making, using, or selling the invention without their permission.

Patents are a form of intellectual property right that grants the patent holder exclusive rights to their invention. This exclusivity enables inventors to prevent others from making, using, selling, or importing their patented invention without permission. In a marketplace brimming with innovation, holding a patent can be the key to maintaining a competitive edge.

Why do you need a patent?

Successfully registering a patent is an essential step in protecting your invention. It helps deter others from using, selling, or manufacturing your invention without your consent. It also increases the market value of your invention, making it more appealing to potential investors or buyers.

This means that a patent is not just a legal document; it is also an important part of your business assets that helps you commercialise your idea and plan your business growth.

Can you patent just a concept?

A common misconception is that a concept alone can be patented. However, in the UK, as in most jurisdictions, an abstract concept cannot be patented unless it is developed into a specific invention. This invention must be new, inventive (not an obvious modification of an existing invention), and capable of industrial application.

To transform your idea into a patentable invention, you must first develop it into a tangible form. You may need to create detailed designs or build a prototype. Once your idea has transformed into a tangible invention, it can be eligible for patent protection.

What can be patented?

In the UK, the scope of what can be patented is defined by the Intellectual Property Office (IPO). Generally, an idea must meet certain criteria to be patentable. It must be something that can be made or used in some kind of industry, which includes anything from agriculture to software. The idea must also be new, meaning it hasn’t been publicly disclosed before, and it must involve an inventive step that is not obvious to others with knowledge and experience in the subject.

Inventions can range from products, such as machines and electronic devices, to processes, like chemical manufacturing methods or new ways of doing business. It’s also possible to patent certain biological materials, provided they meet the necessary requirements. However, there are exceptions to what can be patented in the UK, including scientific theories, mathematical methods, and artistic works, to name a few.

Understanding the boundaries of what can and cannot be patented is essential before embarking on the application process. It helps to avoid wasted effort and ensures that resources are directed towards ideas with a real chance of obtaining patent protection.

Is your idea patentable?

Before proceeding with a patent application, you’ll need to check if your idea is indeed patentable. This means comparing it against the patentability criteria set out by the IPO. The first step is to check if your idea is new which means it must not have been disclosed to the public in any way, anywhere in the world, before the date of filing the patent application.

Next is the inventive step, which requires that the invention is not obvious to someone with knowledge and expertise in the field. This is often where the assessment becomes subjective, and seeking professional advice could be very helpful.

Finally, your idea must have industrial applicability, meaning it must be capable of being made or used in some kind of industry.

If your idea is a mere abstract concept or a scientific principle, it will not meet the criteria for patentability. Similarly, aesthetic creations, methods of medical treatment, and certain software and business methods are typically excluded from patent protection in the UK.

Running a patent search in the UK

Conducting a patent search is one of the first steps in the process of patenting an idea. The purpose of this search is to ensure that your idea is indeed novel and has not been previously patented or disclosed.

Start your search on the Intellectual Property Office search page to help you search through existing patent documents to see if there’s already a registered entry for your idea.

When conducting a patent search, it is important to use a methodical approach. Start by identifying keywords and classifications that relate to your invention. Search not only for identical matches but also for similar inventions that could challenge the novelty of your idea. Pay close attention to the claims section of each patent document, as this defines the scope of the patent holder’s rights.

You should also widen your search beyond the UK databases to international ones, as patents are territorial and an invention may be patented in another country. This thorough search can be a complex and time-consuming task, and many inventors opt to employ the services of a professional patent lawyer or search firm to ensure a comprehensive evaluation.

Intellectual property rights

Intellectual property rights (often called IP rights) are legal rights that protect creations of the mind. These can include inventions, literary and artistic works, designs, symbols, names, and images used in commerce. Intellectual property rights are crucial for encouraging innovation by granting creators exclusive rights to their inventions.

The patent application process in the UK

The process of patenting an idea in the UK involves several steps.

First is to prepare your patent application, which typically includes a description of the invention, any drawings necessary for understanding it, claims that define the scope of the protection sought, and an abstract summarising the invention.

Once the application is prepared, it must be filed with the UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO). Filing can be done online or by post, and it is important to include all the required forms and the appropriate fee. The date of filing is very important, as it establishes the priority date of your invention, which can be critical in the patent granting process.

After filing, the IPO examines the application to ensure it meets all legal requirements. This includes a search for prior art and a substantive examination of the patentability criteria. During this stage, communication with the IPO is key, as they may raise objections or require clarifications. Responding promptly and adequately can significantly influence the outcome of your application.

In detail, the steps to apply for a patent in the UK are:

  1. Filing an Application: You need to complete a patent application form, which is available on the UK Intellectual Property Office website. The application should include a detailed description of your invention and, where applicable, drawings.
  2. Search and Examination: After submitting your application, the UK Intellectual Property Office will conduct a search to ensure that your invention is new. They will also carry out a substantive examination to confirm that your invention is inventive and industrially applicable.
  3. Publication: If the initial steps are successful, your application will be published, granting your invention ‘patent pending’ status.
  4. Grant of Patent: If your application meets all the requirements, a patent will be granted, providing protection for your invention for up to 20 years.

Costs of patenting an idea in the UK

Patenting an idea is an investment, and it is important to be aware of the costs involved in the process. The IPO splits out the costs for each step in the process – which means you normally will pay as you progress through the application. You can find more about the detailed IPO fees on their website.

As a starting point, the initial costs include the filing fee of £75 for the patent application, and then £150 for a search and examination of a UK patent application.

In addition to the official fees, there may be costs associated with professional services, such as hiring a patent attorney. Patent attorneys can provide invaluable assistance with preparing and filing your application, responding to IPO objections, and advising on strategy. While their services add to the overall cost, they can increase the likelihood of obtaining a patent and help avoid costly mistakes.

Moreover, there are ongoing costs to consider once a patent is granted. These include renewal fees, which are paid to the IPO to keep the patent in force, typically starting from the fifth year after filing. The cost of enforcing your patent rights, should infringement occur, can also be significant and should be factored into your financial planning.

How long does it take to obtain a patent in the UK?

Registering a patent is not a quick process and in the UK the process can take several years, depending on the complexity of the invention and the workload of the IPO. After filing the application, it can take up to 18 months before the IPO publishes it, which is the first step in making your invention publicly known.

Following publication, the examination process begins, during which the IPO assesses whether your invention meets all the criteria for patentability. This stage can be lengthy, particularly if there are objections that require resolution. It is not uncommon for the examination process to take another two to three years before a final decision is made.

It is worth noting that while the process is time-consuming, you can request a fast-track examination under certain conditions, which can reduce the time frame. Furthermore, once the application is filed, you can mark your invention as “patent pending,” which offers a degree of protection and can serve as a deterrent against potential infringers.

What to do after receiving your patent

Once you have successfully navigated the patenting process and received your patent, it is important to consider the next steps for your invention. With a patent in hand, you can explore various commercialisation strategies, such as manufacturing and selling the product yourself, licensing the patent to others, or selling the patent outright.

It is also crucial to maintain your patent by paying the required renewal fees to the IPO. Failure to pay these fees can result in your patent being revoked, which would remove the protection it provides. Keep a close eye on the market for any potential infringement of your patent rights, as it is your responsibility to enforce your patent against unauthorised use.

Lastly, consider the global market for your invention. If you believe your invention has potential outside the UK, you may want to seek patent protection in other countries. This can be done through national patent offices or through international patent systems such as the European Patent Office or the Patent Cooperation Treaty.

Protecting your patent rights

Protecting your patent rights is an ongoing responsibility. Vigilance is key, as you must monitor the market for potential infringements. If you suspect that someone is using your patented invention without permission, it is important to seek professional legal advice on how to proceed. Enforcement can range from sending a cease-and-desist letter to taking legal action in court.

It is also essential to keep your patent documentation and records up to date. Any changes in ownership or inventorship should be recorded with the IPO. Additionally, if there are improvements or modifications to your invention, you may need to file additional patent applications to protect these advancements.

Remember that while a patent grants you exclusive rights, it does not automatically stop others from infringing on those rights. It is your duty to enforce your patent, and doing so effectively can ensure that you reap the full benefits of your innovation.

Getting a professional involved

Obtaining a patent can be a complex process, and professional advice can be invaluable. Patent attorneys can offer expert advice on whether your invention can be patented and can assist you in preparing and filing your application.

What cannot be patented?

There are certain things that cannot be patented in the UK. These include literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works, a way of doing business, playing a game or thinking, a method of medical treatment or diagnosis, a discovery, scientific theory or mathematical method, the way information is presented, and ‘essentially biological’ processes like cross-breeding animals or varieties of plants.

International protection

If you wish to protect your invention beyond the UK, you can apply for international patents through certain international organisations. This can provide protection for your invention in multiple countries.

Summary

Patents are powerful tools that can safeguard your inventions, contribute to your business success, and drive further innovation.

Obtaining a patent for your invention in the UK can provide significant advantages, including the right to prevent others from using, selling, or manufacturing your invention without your permission. However, the process of obtaining a patent can be complex and may require professional help. Remember, an idea alone cannot be patented. It must be developed into an invention that is new, inventive, and capable of industrial application.

Should you require further information or assistance with patenting an idea in the UK, the Intellectual Property Office or consult with a professional patent lawyer.

Written by

Anna Thornhill
Anna Thornhillhttps://gosmallbusiness.co.uk
Anna Thornhill is one of our expert writers. Anna is our specialist editor covering business growth and marketing and makes it her mission to provide small business owners with practical guides that help you step-by-step to grow your business. Anna’s an experienced sales and marketing professional who moved to writing and editorial and helps startups and small business owners with practical advice in growing their business with the latest sales and marketing techniques plus guides to choosing and using sales and marketing technology.
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